Monday, November 19, 2007

Perceptions: Where we are as who we are

My friend and neighbor Frances Cook has written a response to yesterday’s post about the Interstate/Chavez flare-up.

She raises the question of whether those who use Fourth Avenue, which is likely to get the Cesar Chavez name, will not also feel a name has been taken from them.

It’s a good question. We are about to find out the answer.

My sense is that numbered streets carry less meaning than those that have word names. Then again, 5th Avenue in New York has its own cache. Saks might have something to say about changing the street’s name.

And certainly the legend surrounding Rte 66 dictates that its name be preserved. (Here a tip of the hat is in order to Nate Cole.)

Since last night’s post I’ve found myself chewing on this question: To what extent is our identity defined by where we are?

Note that this is not limited to ownership. Where we live becomes part of our identity.

A couple of years ago in Hillsdale we felt threatened when our identity with our place and its name faced a challenge in a boundary dispute. Two neighborhoods (Hillsdale and the Southwest Hills Residential League) shared the same territory. As the neighborhoods grew in importance, we began to identify with one or the other of them. Finally, a headstrong local leader attempted to tell us to “where” we lived. We didn’t take kindly the coercion and things turned messy and litigious (conveniently for her, her husband was an attorney).

After considerable angst, we resolved the conflict by asking people literally to decide where they lived. Nine out of ten had no trouble doing so in a way that made sense, so we redrew the boundary eliminating the overlaps.

Everyone is happier and more “at one,” except the renegade leader, who resolved her own conflict by moving to another state.

It isn’t hard to see how war results from threats to our sense of oneness with our place. We defend a place because the loss of it to someone else represents the loss of our very identifies — our memories, our present lives, our hopes for the future.

Seen in this way, the effort to change the name of Interstate Avenue was no small matter.

The key to resolution of the conflict was to find a place where people were more than willing to adopt and, yes, share a new, meaningful identity. Clearly the abandonment of Interstate didn’t satisfy that requirement for the people who lived and worked on the North Portland avenue. Their identities were bound up with the name of the place.

Fourth Avenue may work as a Cesar Chavez Avenue. For me it does. The new name is a proud one that celebrates an inspirational life. Then again, as Frances suggests, it may not work if Fourth and the people who use it are one.

From the reaction so far, I think Fourth has a lot better chance than Interstate did.

I hope I’m right.

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Blogger sean cruz said...

Rick: Your reasoned commentary is a rarity in Portland these days on this issue. Thank you.

I'd like to point out that Fourth Ave runs right through the Chinatown gates, but that on Fifth Ave a few blocks away is the home of the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, inexplicably silent on the entire debacle.

8:43 AM  

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